24 August 2010

An Appreciation of Joan of Arc (the band)



If you search Pitchfork, the hipster haven for music on the internet, for Joan of Arc and look at the record reviews, you'll see that nothing by the band has gotten above a 5.3 out of 10.  And these are just the record reviews they show from their search engine.  I know I've seen a review of How Memory Works a long time ago, but they must have begun deleting some old reviews or something.  But the point is that I remember that review being extremely low as well.  The Gap has a 1.9 out of 10.  I'm going to avoid the fact that this decimal rating system can't be anything but completely arbitrary, besides the already obvious subjectivity behind it, but it does seem like this entire music website has something against Joan of Arc in particular.  I'm not in deep enough with the Chicago music culture to know of any feud between the band and the monolithic "indie" (if a website providing news of Beyonce and Kanye can still call itself that) website to say this for certain (and that they give positive reviews to Owen and Owls makes me wonder what it really is about Joan of Arc that they really can't stand).  I guess it could just be that everyone there, despite Joan of Arc being a hometown Chicago indie band, genuinely doesn't like or even hates Joan of Arc.  I guess it just bothers me when I compare their Joan of Arc reviews with reviews of Deerhoof, Dirty Projectors, and Xiu Xiu (some of the most annoying god awful noise to be emitted from any group of people for a profit) with high ratings and "Best New Music" tags next to their names.

I like Joan of Arc.  A lot.  They're hit and miss at times and their newer stuff, Flowers and Boo Human aren't the best things they've produced, but still have their amazing moments, like all of their albums.  Songs like "This Life Cumulative" and "(I'm 5 Senses) None of Them Common" have this unique rhythmic and lyrical pattern that's catchy yet defies all convention.  The use of a variety of instruments, coupling soft acoustics with electronics is one of the many reasons How Memory Works is such a fantastic album.  Sometimes it's really hard for me to tell whether their songs have an immense amount of work put into them or if they're free form derives from an organic expulsion of structure, unconcerned with classical forms.  Either way the effect is great and original.  "Perfect Need and Perfect Completion" is one of the most eerily somber songs I've ever heard, and its lyrical form is baffling.  And the instrumentation behind the vocals, its clean and low beat yearning, expresses both the internal mindset and the external world imbedded within it so well.   The entire So Much Staying Alive and Lovelessness album almost requires an environment of a rainy day spent in bed.  And in much the same way Live in Chicago, 1999 is a transparent, fractured, defeated record that feels like it could barely manage to be recorded.  That's not to say that it's bad, but the feeling is akin to the after effects of being trampled on by the culture and by the mishaps of love.  The first song is even called (and I find humor in this extremely emo title) "It's Easier To Drink On an Empty Stomach To Eat On a Broken Heart."

I think I can honestly understand why people, critics initially, didn't or don't like The Gap.  You would probably need to be a deconstruction nut or looking for something completely formless to enjoy this album.  I think it would sound something similar US Maple turning into an emo band or a softer, non-aggressive and less political version of Yes Sir, I Will.  There are even times in the middle of the album, between "As Black Pants Make Cat Hairs Appear" and "Me and America (or) The United Colors of the Gap" where I get sort of bored with it, but overall I enjoy that there is an album like this out there no matter how hard it is to find in stores or even for an illegal download.  The reason that I appreciate it is because it comes across as genuine to me.  If Tim Kinsella were in this to make money or solely to preserve an image, he would have stopped a long time ago.  This is a band from the era of Modest Mouse and Death Cab for Cutie, and while those bands, for better or worse, got more popular and became more accessible with a less gritty sound (in the case of Modest Mouse), Joan of Arc continue embrace their obscurity with little reward for it.  And the fact is, despite the struggles the band has with its lack recognition, even within their own community, resulting in more than likely an increasing economic strain, they are more prolific than almost any other band given the time frame of their existence.  And the quality along with the quantity of the output is amazing.  Ten full length albums in about 13 or 14 years.  Some of them better than others, some of them I'm still getting used to.  But albums like How Memory Works, Live In Chicago, 1999, The Gap, and So Much Staying Alive and Lovelessness have become vital to my music-listening existence.

A couple of nights ago I had the pleasure of seeing this band, after roughly 5 years of listening to them, for the first time at Ronny's, a dive bar in Chicago with an ironic room labeled "Ronny's Center For the Performing Arts."  I wasn't expecting them to play anything old.  The amount of songs in their history, along with numerous side projects would make me believe that it's extremely difficult for Tim Kinsella, as well as his constantly revolving and importing of band members to remember songs from 1998.  But to my surprise right after they opened with "Flowers" from their newest album of the same name, they transitioned straight into "So Open: Hooray!," one of the greatest songs not just on How Memory Works, but out of their entire oeuvre.  Their live rendition of it had so much vigor, I got chills when Kinsella, clenching his eyes closed while picking guitar strings, continually screaming, instead of almost whispering, as on the album, "Let's sit and stare at each other" with the drums and bass loudly present behind him, also unlike the album version.  I was in awe of the way that the entire band could play in such an untraditional way yet still all be on the same page, musically.  I'm not sure if the band was expecting to do an encore, since this was a dive bar, and even in their hometown, the crowd barely filled the room.  But by the end everyone was demanding one and they came back with the always great "Who's Afraid of Elizabeth Taylor."  So far, the best shows I've been to this year have been the Jesus Lizard, The Melvins, and Lightning Bolt.  This show was obviously a much different environment than these other bands, but in its own way it ranks up there with the best shows I've been to in 2010.

Ultimately the great thing about Joan of Arc is that their unconventional songwriting and musical structure, with revealing emotional lyrics, not only lays bare the workings of Kinsella's mindset and aesthetic praxis, but also portrays a freedom from modern pop music confines in songwriting, as well as a confidence in letting out ardent, authentic emotional material barely practiced by other bands.  For this reason I wouldn't call their work "faux-art rock," like Pitchfork claims, or even label them as a "hipster" band.  There is substance and feeling behind their work, not a drive to valorize an image.  And like most things completely genuine, which usually goes hand in hand with unconventionality in the face of our modern culture, unfortunately their music doesn't get the recognition and support it deserves.  Fortunately for people like me who relish in and anticipate every release with a boyish giddiness (they're one of the only bands anymore that I can still do that with), this band is persistent and continues to struggle to make great and interesting music.

09 August 2010

Delmore Schwartz: A Poet Up Against Rising Modernity




The first time I had ever heard of Delmore Schwartz was in the book The Forest For the Trees by Betsy Lerner.  I had to read this book, a guide for writers entering the publishing world during or after their post-graduate studies, for an undergraduate Editing and Publishing class.  Before the book began the section on publishing it went through different types of writers.  I'm not sure I totally agree with classifying writers in this way, but anyway, in the section titled "The Natural" I came across this passage:

College is the usual place where young writers experiment with writerly personas.  I fondly recall the English Department's cast of characters: a handful of poseurs after the fashion of Kerouac and Cassady, one self-styled Gertrude Stein who ran a workshop out of her West Village apartment (very cool, given that most of us starving artists were toughing it out in the dorms with full meal plans), a couple of macho-Hemingways, an effete Oscar Wilde, and of course the moody girl poets.  When I was in graduate school, two particular poets stood out.  One, who fancied himself a young T.S. Eliot, was a diminutive prig who promptly dispensed with his first name in favor of initials, always wore a blazer, and carried a walking stick.  The other seemed the absolute reincarnation of Delmore Schwartz.  He never turned in a single piece of writing as far as I can recall, but I believe he slept with most of the women in the program. (Lerner 41)

Since the T.S. Eliot comparison seems so true to my impression of him, I assumed that whoever this Delmore Schwartz guy was had to be similar to the graduate student described, who sounds pretty fucking cool to me.  So when I got home from work, where I had been reading this book, I looked him up on Wikipedia, Google Image Search, etc. to see what the deal was.  His odd name stuck with me like it was meant for further investigation.  The more I found about him, I not only got vague commentaries about the rise and fall of his publicly accepted greatness, his insanity in later life, but I also saw him appearing in other things that I had been reading or listening to.  When reading section VI of John Berryman's The Dream Songs later that year, I discovered that his haunting spirit or Berryman's recollection of him made up the subject of at least the first 13 Dream Songs.  I also discovered that Lou Reed was a student of his at Syracuse, and wrote a song about him: "My House" on his album The Blue Mask.  And eventually I found out that Von Humboldt Fleisher in Saul Bellow's Humboldt's Gift was based primarily on him, which led me to buy the book and read it 6 months later, and prompted, for lack of a better phrase, a more academic study of the poet, and hence this little essay.
            I wrote the introduction of this piece before beginning the rest of it just so I could compare the impressions with the more in depth facts I would later find, and for the most part everything I've already thought about him was true.  The small details explored in James Atlas's biography on Schwartz make his story all the more interesting, both in admirable and sorrowful respects.  This along with Bellow's novel gives one more a sense, I think, of the Modern environment Humbodlt (Schwartz) grew up in, and how that environment continues to get worse.  It's as if Bellow saw Schwartz as one of the last real voices of poetry in America's increasingly confining social system, because toward the end of the novel, through the character of Charlie Citrane (the only evidence I have for Citrane being based off Bellow is the similar relationship between Citrane and Humboldt in the novel being extremely similar to Schwartz's and Bellow's real one) he says, "There's the most extraordinary, unheard-of poetry buried in America, but none of the conventional means known to culture can even begin to extract it," suggesting that times have gotten much worse for poetry since the beginning of the Modern Era, or some other previous ideal time (Bellow 483).  Given that Bellow, at one point one of Schwartz's good friends, has a very prominent theme of the alienation caused Modern society, which probably says a lot more about the alienation of current (post-modern, or post-post-modern, whatever it currently is) society, I think that it's very important to look at Schwartz's work with a knowledge on the events of his life, and what caused his mental decline, his psychologically troubled childhood, while also being able to appreciate his works amidst all of this.  Sure, his work towards the end of his life was hard to interpret sometimes and for his editors, hard to sift through all the nonsense and scattered thoughts, but his early work deserved all the hype it got, if not more.  What I'm going to do in this very long (for a blog post) study is first go through some of his early work, with critical help, and then go into a further study of his life both through the perspective of his biographer, James Atlas, as well as his friends' fiction and poetry, more specifically John Berryman and Saul Bellow.
            One of the first poems of his to strike me immediately, that made me realize he was something special, was "In the Naked Bed, in Plato's Cave."  I've put the entire thing here:

In the naked bed, in Plato's cave,
Reflected headlights slowly slid the wall,
Carpenters hammered under the shaded window,
Wind troubled the window curtains all night long,
A fleet of trucks strained uphill, grinding,
Their freights covered, as usual.
The ceiling lightened again, the slanting diagram
Slid slowly forth.
                           Hearing the milkman's chop,
His striving up the stair, the bottle's chink,
I rose from bed, lit a cigarette,
And walked to the window.  The stony street
Displayed the stillness in which buildings stand,
The street-lamp's vigil and the horse's patience.
The winter sky's pure capital
Turned me back to bed with exhausted eyes.

Strangeness grew in motionless air.  The loose
Film grayed.  Shaking wagons, hooves' waterfalls,
Sounded far off, increasing, louder and nearer.
A car coughed, starting.  Morning, softly
Melting the air, lifted the half-covered chair
From underseas, kindled the looking-glass,
Distinguished the dresser and the white wall.
The bird called tentatively, whistled, called,
Bubbled and whistled, so! Perplexed, still wet
With sleep, affectionate, hungry and cold.  So, so,
O son of man, the ignorant night, the travail
Of early morning, the mystery of beginning
Again and again,
                           while History is unforgiven.  (Schwartz 25)

It's no surprise after reading this to find out that Schwartz suffered from insomnia tremendously throughout his life.  But my first feeling when reading this wasn't so much restlessness as it was of confinement.  I got this image, I don't know from where, of him being locked up in his head, almost as if his environment, his room was his own mind.  And when he looks outside into the world and sees "The winter sky's pure capital" (which could have a strong Marxist interpretation) he goes back to rest.  Outside of his mind is the laboring, noisy material world, encompassing him.  This, I think, is a great metaphor for the social situation emerging in Modernity, or at least how Delmore saw himself situated within it.  At this point in his life he could still find solace, a minor sense of peace within himself.  Sure he could still hear everything happening outside, and "Reflected lights slowly slid the wall" inside of his apartment, intruding from the outside, but from my reading of this poem, the material world hasn't fully integrated into this room, into his mind.  Similarly, in Humboldt's Gift, Charlie Citrane remembers this memory of Humboldt: "He told me that poets ought to figure out how to get around pragmatic America," and this is the sentiment I get of Schwartz's ideology toward America during the construction of this poem (Bellow 11).
            Now, a digression before I continue about this particular poem; I had the unfortunate experience of reading just a little bit of Edward Ford's 2005 study on Schwartz, called A Reevaluation of the Works of American Writer Delmore Schwartz, 1913-66.  I should have seen the unenthusiastic preface, written by Dr. David Cappella, in which nearly every sentence begins with either "Ford" or "His" and has pretty much the same sentence structure throughout, as a sign of what was to come.  I read the first two chapters and increasingly found myself getting annoyed with this guy's style of writing.  It was like this book was written by an obnoxious 10 year-old on Christmas Eve who you just feel like smacking.  If that wasn't enough, an entire paragraph is made up like this:

I am struck by his brilliance when I read that Delmore said, "Wine is one of the proofs of the existence of God," that Delmore said, "The Wasteland is incoherent," that Delmore said, "I've had a lover's quarrel with the world," that Delmore said, "Experience is knowledge of error," that Delmore said, ...  (Ford 4)

And that goes on for way longer than it should.  Eventually I got this annoying science fiction fan-boy voice in my head when reading everything in this guy's book and couldn't even take the insightful things seriously.  Some of his claims, too, are just outrageous and totally unqualified.  For example, "Delmore was very much shaped by his reading of French literature, and his work can only be fully appreciated by internationally minded critics" (Ford 12).  Bullshit. "Far from suffering a decline, Delmore was at the peak of his poetic powers when he passed away" (Ford 15).  If there were evidence to back this up in anyway, I might be convinced, but none is provided.  And that's not to say that his later material was all bad, but to say that he was at the peak is just an empty statement solely made for a difference of opinion on the actual facts of this man's life.  I don't know how this can be taken seriously in comparison with a quote from James Atlas' biography, recalling Delmore's first trip to Bellevue after having threatened a man he imagined had taken his wife and hid her in his hotel room:

Delmore ... was in a sorry condition.  Arriving at Bellevue 'excited, hyper-active, and nervous'--according to a physician's report--he suffered several seizures during the night, possibly brought on by acute alcohol withdrawal.  The medical report was somber indeed; Delmore was variously diagnosed as having 'acute brain syndrome,' 'diffuse brain disease,' and 'psychomotor retardation' due to severe intoxication from a combination of alcohol, Dexedrine, and other drugs.  Over the next few days, while Bellow was raising money for his release, Delmore's condition deteriorated further; at one point he was completely out of control, and had to be placed in what were ominously referred to as 'full restraints.'  His hands trembled, his speech was slurred, and his version of the events that had landed him there was incoherent.  The habits of twenty years had finally caused irreversible damage. (Atlas 332-333)

Doesn't sound to me like someone at the peak of anything good.  Along with this, in Dream Song 150, Berryman says, "I'd bleed to say his lovely work improved / but it is not so ..." (lines 13-14) and in Dream song 157 says, "His work downhill, I don't conceal from you, / ran and ran out.  The brain shook as if stunned," (lines 10-11).  But anyway, I'm going to reluctantly use some of Ford's criticism in this piece, because some of it is useful at times, but over all, I would recommend not touching his book.
            "Delmore does not believe in the reality of the seen world, but rather he believes that true reality lay hidden behind the appearances" (Ford 50).  This is actually an interesting observance that I hadn't realized until I read this criticism, and it actually has some merit to it.  The poem states, " A fleet of trucks strained uphill, grinding, / Their freights covered, as usual," and Ford's analysis claims that whatever "the trucks are carrying are hidden from view.  True reality is like this, hidden, and only knowable to the modern Gnostic" (Ford 50).  The only part that bothers me about this is the last part about the Gnostic.  I don't really see any indication that anyone knows what's in this metaphorical truck and its hidden contents.  When the poem reads that the contents are "covered, as usual," it seems like this secrecy of the content in the trucks, hidden from public view, is generally accepted.  And again, this was the Modern world, a world, from what knowledge I can grasp of it, was less tangled than our own.  But with this we can see the sort of social axioms that our current mess is based off of.
            In a later poem, "I am to My Own Heart Merely a Serf," the obtrusiveness of the Modern world seems more prevalent in the last stanza:

But when sleep is too crowded, when sleep too
Is full of chores impossible and heavy,
The looking for white doors whose numbers are
Different and equal, that is, infinite,
The carriage of my father on my back,
Last summer, 1910, and my own people,
The government of love's great polity,
The choice of taxes, the production
Of clocks, of lights, and horses, the location
Of monuments, of hotels and of rhyme,
Then, then, in final anger, I wake up!
Merely wake up once more,
                                             once more to resume
The unfed hope, the unfed animal,
Being the servant of incredible assumption,
Being to my own heart merely a serf.  (Schwartz 71-72)

When he begins saying "Of clocks ..." we can sense the pick up of an anxious tempo that leads from dream to reality.  And when he says, "once more to resume," it's as if nothing major has changed.  The frustrations and unresolved complexities now seem to be digging into his psyche, invading his own mentality, resulting in a lack of peace.  Whereas in "In the Naked Bed, In Plato's Cave," there is still a sense separation, although a definite presence, between Modern culture and the poet's psyche, in this poem we see a full intermingling, where sleep is no different from being awake and having to battle the desires of his "heart," which can't seem to find any sort of solace in the world around him.  And although the last lines seem a bit bleak, expressing "Schwartz's sense of desire's confines", in the full view of his life, the fact that he is still driven by his spirit, his heart is still a sign of his great poetics at work, battling instead of succumbing to Modernity (Beard 63).
            "The Heavy Bear Who Goes With Me" is one of, if not his most, famous poems, and is in sync with the feelings of every twenty-something coming to a realization of the limits of their body.  This idea was expressed greatly by either Ruskin or Carlyle, I forget which, and can't seem to find the quote, and since this isn't a real academic paper, am giving up on finding it.  Anyway, here's the entire poem:

'the withness of the body'

The heavy bear who goes with me,
A manifold honey to smear his face,
Clumsy and lumbering here and there,
The central ton of every place,
The hungry beating brutish one
In love with candy, anger, and sleep,
Crazy factotum, disheveling all,
Climbs the building, kicks the football,
Boxes his brother in the hate-ridden city.

Breathing at my side, that heavy animal,
That heavy bear who sleeps with me,
Howls in his sleep for a world of sugar,
A sweetness intimate as the water's clasp,
Howls in his sleep because the tight-rope
Trembles and shows the darkness beneath.
--The strutting show-off is terrified,
Dressed in his dress-suit, bulging his pants,
Trembles to think that his quivering meat
Must finally wince to nothing at all.

That inescapable animal walks with me,
Has followed me since the black womb held,
Moves where I move, distorting my gesture,
A caricature, a swollen shadow,
A stupid clown of the spirit's motive,
Perplexes and affronts with his own darkness,
The secret life of belly and bone,
Opaque, too near, my private, yet unknown,
Stretches to embrace the very dear
With whom I would walk without him near,
Touches her grossly, although a word
Would bare my heart and make me clear,
Stumbles, flounders, and strives to be fed
Dragging me with him in his mouthing care,
Amid the hundred million of his kind,
The scrimmage of appetite everywhere.  (Schwartz 75).

The way that he separates the body and soul is great.  Schwartz was also a tall gangly, clumsy, lumbering man, making the poem even more personal and descriptive.  The line that sums it up the best is "A stupid clown of the spirit's motive."  It's almost as if the body won't allow us to achieve what we really want.  No matter what our intentions, our aspirations really, truly are, the body can't travel in that direction, like an obstinate chess piece.  What Phillip Beard has to say about this sense of spirituality (although in this passage not talking directly about this poem), is somewhat dismissive: "Despite an undeniable energy of aspiration, there is also a staleness, a quality of hedged bets ... moreso than in Eliot, say, because Schwartz does not fully engage in religious rhetoric--instead he invokes something that seems oxymoronic" (67).  The fact that Schwartz didn't utilize the lingo of religion, like Eliot did in his personal and poetic life shouldn't really have anything to do with the merit of this.  I don't see how structured religion evades, rather than reinforces, what Schwartz is trying to escape in this particular poem.  Like the human body that he is at odds with, a definite, real thing surrounding him, organized religion persuades people to be mostly on the same page, attempting, although not always successfully, to create a definite course of action and thought process expressed by all of the respective religion’s followers.  To me they're part of the same problem.  This is also echoed in Humboldt's Gift, where Citrane is talking to his ex-wife, Denise, who is suing him, in court:

... Anyway I don't know why mystic should be such a bad word.  It doesn't mean much more than the word 'religion,' which some people still speak with respect.  What does religion say?  It says that there's something in human beings beyond the body and brain and that we have ways of knowing that they go beyond the organism and its senses.  I've always believed that.  My misery comes, maybe, from ignoring my own metaphysical hunches. (Bellow 230)

Throughout these specific works that I've cited, I can see a pattern, a theme of the poet combating the forces of Modern culture with only his confining mind, created, in turn, by this Modern culture, and his restless spirit expressing itself as best possible through structured language.
            Now that I've shown some of his work and my own interpretations of it, I'll provide some context by Saul Bellow's Humboldt's Gift, James Atlas' biography, and John Berryman's Dream Songs.  Delmore Schwartz was born December 8th, 1913.  Most of his childhood, or his recollection of it anyway, was spent between the clashing egos of his parents.  His father would eventually become a successful businessman before the depression, and one of his mother's characteristics was to constantly lure him away from his work to spend time with her.  She needed an operation in order to have kids, and secretly she got this done, without Harry, his father, knowing.  This is how Delmore was conceived.  His father had some infidelities and eventually the parents divorced.  It was after the divorce that Harry made his fortune and his mother became increasingly jealous, constantly badmouthing him in front of Delmore.  As a result of this Delmore never liked his mother, even skipped her funeral when she died towards the end of Delmore's own life.
            Since Harry had this big fortune, Delmore expected to inherit it after his father passed away, which happened in 1929.  However, the fortune never arrived, Harry having lost a lot in the depression, and the rest being tied up in court "indefinitely pending the settlement of various claims" (Atlas 32).  When his father died, Delmore didn't really think about it, or mourn his death.  Instead he focused on his obsession with baseball.
            "The notion of becoming a poet had been with him since he was twelve, when he submitted his first poems ... to The Nation and The American Mercury" (Atlas 26).  T.S. Eliot was one of his obsessions when he was very young, and this interest in the poet not only remained with him until the end of his life, but also strengthened with time.  It wasn't just a passive obsession as he grew older; it became a critical one.  There's even an unpublished book of criticism on T.S. Eliot amidst his many unfinished manuscripts.
            Schwartz started college at Columbia, but transferred quickly to the University of Wisconsin, which at the time was described as a very radical campus. 
During his time in college he began what would become a common characteristic for him: constantly breaking off friendships.  He also had the high Modernist tendencies of practicing self-restriction: "To see no moving pictures, read no cheap books, listen to no catgut music at all" (Atlas 43).  I've personally always thought that these sorts of restrictions are psychologically detrimental.  I obviously have no proof for this, but not indulging in "low culture" is just a sign of taking yourself way too seriously and reinforces the negativities of extreme self-consciousness.  And, as Atlas says, "Delmore must have been one of the most self-conscious writers who ever lived" (3).  He often remarked in his journals and letters how he thought so much that he feared he would break out into convulsions.  This characteristic of extreme self-consciousness, perceived from others, tends to make one look pretentious.  I think this was more of a case of extreme shyness coming across to others as arrogance, although he did have a taste for the "finer" arts, and probably could come across as dismissive at times.
            Much like Betsy Lerner's description of the graduate student she encountered, Delmore tended to skip class, not turn in homework, but still managed to get As in his English courses.  He later transferred to NYU, because his mother wouldn't help him pay the fare to travel back to Wisconsin.  Here he met the woman that would become his first wife, Gertrude.  Their relationship never seemed to be very intimate and always exhibited signs, from both parties, of not trusting the other.  And most of their marriage was never really happy, which is why they eventually got divorced. 
            But it was during his time at NYU that he really developed his poetic voice and developed his standards that made him measure his work against the other great Modern poets. "He tortured himself by adopting impossible standards, measuring his own poems against what he read with unsparing self-criticism.  Yet his stern apprenticeship was responsible for his having learned the uses of imitation at an early age; and from then on it was simply a question of transforming the conventions he had mastered into an idiom of his own" (Atlas 69).  His story, "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities" was published in Partisan Review and received much critical acclaim.  His work in a way attracted notice from all over the art world.  In the Modern world, he was the shining example of a young, intelligent, promising voice in literature rising up through capitalist society, but eventually, like everything else beautiful, getting crushed by the influences of it.  As Charlie Citrane says in Humboldt's Gift, "He was destroyed--I can't help repeating this" (Bellow 53).  Delmore was as aware as he could have been about his environment.  His extreme self-consciousness placed him in isolation for most of the time, living in boarding houses, working on his short stories and poems for most of his early 20s. "Delmore's aggrieved sense of alienation, which he blamed on America's materialistic values, would deepen as he grew older, but it was even now beginning to affect his work ... It was not his fault ... that he was lonely and self-conscious; it was the fault of American society, which rewarded performers while ignoring poets" (Atlas 86).  He didn't know really how to take his early success.  Being as self conscious as he was, he would constantly have to measure his work against the success of the splash he made in the literary world right as he entered it.
            But obviously, this entrance into the world of literature had its good aspects as well.  He was in correspondence with Wallace Stevens, W.H Auden, Ezra Pound for a time, who considered Schwartz a disciple of sorts, and his hero, T.S. Eliot, who wrote him a letter of praise for both his poetry and a critical article he wrote on the popular poet himself: "No single event in Delmore's literary career was more significant to him than this letter; he never tired of talking about it, and endowed it with a sort of talismanic value" (Atlas 154).  However, Schwartz's view of Eliot and Pound grew more critical and repulsed by their anti-Semitic tirades, Schwartz being a Jew. "Delmore felt personally slighted whenever his literary heroes expressed distastes for the Jews, for it fed his self-hatred and cast doubt on his self-chosen identity as their cultural heir.  After reading Pound's Guide to Kulchur, he was so infuriated by Pound's references to Jews and the 'Semitic race' that he dashed off a letter announcing his refusal to serve any longer as one of his disciples" (Atlas 163).  However, this didn't stop Schwartz from reviewing Pound favorably later on in life.
            Around the time that "Genesis," his epic novel-length poem, was published he began drinking more heavily, having affairs, and continued taking sleeping pills that he had been prescribed earlier for his insomnia.  The divorce from his wife Gertrude and the bad reviews of "Genesis" didn't help his self-consciousness and drug abuse either.

Like so many American writers, Delmore had succumbed to the pressure to distinguish himself by an immortal work, and as a consequence had pushed into realms beyond even the reach of his prodigious genius, striving to rival Wordsworth and Milton instead of exploiting his gift for lyric poetry.  His demands upon an intractable world that offered only marginal success to poets were perhaps unreasonable, but those demands formed a significant aspect of his character, and had arisen from circumstances not entirely of his choosing" (Atlas 241). 

Previous ages in human development didn't exhibit such harsh expectations and limits for poets, or probably artists in general.  And this environment determined arguably all of the work being produced: "It was the fault of Modernism, which had encouraged writers to reflect the fragmented consciousness of the twentieth century, that poetry had become obscure" (Atlas 280).
            After teaching at Harvard for a while, he moved back to New York and married one of his old mistresses, Elizabeth Pollet, also a writer.  Together they moved into a farmhouse in New Jersey where he would become more isolated, more depressed, and as a result, drank more.  This depression, fueled by drugs and the culture would turn into paranoia.  Violent explosions of madness in public would become a common thing for him.  Elizabeth left him in 1955 because he was scaring the shit out of her.  As a result of this he chased down an art critic, Hilton Kramer, who he thought took his wife and was hiding her from him.  This was how he wound up at Bellevue the first time, and where the long quote from earlier in this essay was from.  Delmore hired a private detective, just like in Humboldt's Gift (in fact almost everything that happens in the novel between Citrane and Humboldt is just as accurately recorded in Atlas' biography between Bellow and Schwartz).  He would turn his back on a lot of his friends, attempting to sue them for various things.  It just shows how a person's madness and paranoia can be made legitimate in the business of our politics.  As long as one has money, no matter how many psyche ward trips he or she has made, it will be taken and dealt with seriously.
            Delmore was invited, with other poets to Kennedy's inauguration, but received the letter too late, because he eventually got to the point of never opening his mail.  He taught for a while at the University of California where he began living with a 17 year-old student and wound up bringing her back to New York with him when he started teaching at Syracuse University.  A lot of his students liked him, including Lou Reed, but eventually he wound up isolated in an apartment, broke.  He died as described in Humboldt's Gift, suffering from a heart attack in his apartment's lobby while taking out the trash.

            I honestly can't say enough about how good Humboldt's Gift is, not just as a fictional (although very accurate) account of Delmore Schwartz's life, but also a book about the onslaught of increased capitalism and the spirit's resulting battle against cultural forces.  To be honest, I was sort of surprised how little the book was about Schwartz's character and more about Bellow's character, Charlie Citrane.  The entire story flows together very well and the amount of quotable lines, lines that linger in one's mind are too enormous even for this essay.  Charlie Citrane has numerous inner dialogues about his view on the human spirit, dismissing the notion that "As none of this [spirituality] is Scientific, we are afraid to think it" (Bellow 10).  He definitely is not afraid to think it and talk about it openly with everyone around him, despite the resistance of all his friends and loved ones.  His younger attractive girlfriend is like a personified cog in the machine, constantly telling him not to go on and on about the human spirit, that it loses her.  And he shows how much of his thought is informed by Humboldt (Schwartz): "I had never heard such things said about business, its power to petrify the soul.  Humboldt spoke wonderfully of the wonderful, abominable rich.  You had to view them in the shield of art" (Bellow 13).  And with these sorts of dialogues, mostly inner, through Charlie Citrane figuring things out for himself, or remembering his conversations with Humboldt, a social topography is illuminated:

There came a time (Early Modern) when, apparently, life lost the ability to arrange itself.  It had to be arranged.  Intellectuals took this as their job.  From say, Machiavelli's time to our own this arranging has been the one great gorgeous tantalizing misleading disastrous project.  A man like Humboldt, inspired, shrewd, nutty, was brimming over with the discovery that the human enterprise, so grand and infinitely varied, had now to be managed by exceptional persons. (Bellow 29)

And his research and lived experience in Chicago is displayed greatly, with brief, insightful quotes: "In raw Chicago you could examine the human spirit under industrialism" (Bellow 109).
            But one of the interesting points where Berryman and Bellow come together is the fact that American is proud of its dead poets, that its forces are too much for the spiritually and empathetically minded.

For some reason this awfulness is peculiarly appreciated by business and technological America.  The country is proud of its dead poets.  It takes terrific satisfaction in the poets' testimony that the USA is too tough, too big, too much, too rugged, that American reality is overpowering.  And to be a poet is a school thing, a skirt thing, a church thing.  The weakness of the spiritual powers is proved in the childishness, madness, drunkenness, and despair of these martyrs.  Orpheus moved stones and trees.  But a poet can't perform a hysterectomy or send a vehicle out of the solar system.  Miracle and power no longer belong to him.  So poets are loved, but loved because they just can't make it here.  They exist to light up the enormity of the awful tangle and justify the cynicism of those who say, "If I were not such a corrupt, unfeeling bastard, creep, thief, and vulture, I couldn't get through this either.  Look at these good and tender and soft men, the best of us.  They succumbed, poor loonies. (Bellow 119)

And Berryman, as a poet, through his character, Henry, in Dream Song 147 states, "He looked onto the world like the act of an aged whore" like he had been used and abused by the world, paid off to maintain his being fed up with it (line 2).  And the following line is rhymed with "Delmore, Delmore," as if his remembrance of his friend, the poet, holds similar sentiments: that they, the emotional, intellectual expressers in America, the ones with as true a feeling that came come through text, are casualties that will go unremembered: insignificant (line 3).  Or as Bellow puts it in a more universal human sense: "I felt sorry for us, for both, for all of us, such odd organisms under the sun.  Large minds abutting too close on swelling souls.  And banished souls at that, longing for their home-world.  Everyone alive mourned the loss of his home-world" (Bellow 126).  Despite this though, there seems to be a consensus growing throughout the Modern era, strengthened in our own, in agreement with the American sense of capitalist and protestant work ethic that dismisses this sort of expression, and sometimes even the reactions to the consensus still exhibit traits originating inside the cultural structure, because if we don't have a discourse on the level that our culture demands, it gets played off as nonsense, hence Citrane's remark about being afraid to think of spirituality because it eludes a logical, rational, or scientific framework to express it.
            These limited options, if one can call them options are what drove Delmore mad.  He couldn't sleep so he was given drugs that wound up destroying his brain and body.  Synthetic pharmaceuticals, created to combat either the exhaustion or over-thinking reaction to our everyday social existence is an example of this.  In an attempt to get help, one may receive momentary relief, but in the long run it will hinder your functioning even more so, especially once one becomes reliant on them.  Seeing no other options, "He threw himself into weakness and became a hero of wretchedness.  He consented to the monopoly of power and interests held by money, politics, law, rationality, technology because he couldn't find the next thing, the new thing, the necessary thing for poets to do" (Bellow 157).  The Modern era was where our social system was so pervasive that its complexity allowed and maintained the avenues of reaction within it.  Just like "The Heavy Bear Who Goes With Me," like the human body, we're trapped (at least for the time being).  Within this environment, a mass amount of varying theories are contained that ultimately lead nowhere besides a discussion forum.  In an argument Charlie Citrane has with his girlfriend about the arts magazine he wants to start called The Ark, an echo of this takes place.  It shows what he thinks the value of such a publication, what value the arts have in our culture as a medium for discussion:

'When you start to talk about The Ark you lose me.  For once tell me simply--what, why?'
            I was grateful for such a challenge really.  As an aid to concentration I shut my eyes to answer.  I said, 'The ideas of the last few centuries are used up.'
            'Who says! See what I mean by arrogance,' Reneta interrupted.
            'But so help me, they are used up.  Social ideas, political, philosophical theories, literary ideas (poor Humboldt!), sexual ones, and, I suspect, even scientific ones.'
            'What do you know about all these things, Charlie?  You've got brain fever.'
            'As the world's masses arrive at the point of consciousness, they take these exhausted ideas for new ones.  How should they know?  And people's parlors are papered with these projections.'
            'This is too serious for tongue twisters.'
            'I am serious.  The greatest things, the things most necessary for life, have recoiled and retreated.  People are actually dying of this, losing all personal life, and the inner being of millions, many many millions, is missing.  One can understand that in many parts of the world there is no hope for it because of famine or police dictatorships, but here in the free world what excuse have we?  Under pressure of public crisis the private sphere is being surrendered.  I admit this private sphere has become so repulsive that we are glad to get away from it.  But we accept the disgrace ascribed to it and people have filled their lives with so-called 'public questions.'  What do we hear when these public questions are discussed?  The failed ideas of three centuries.  Anyhow the end of the individual, whom everyone seems to scorn and detest, will make our destruction, our superbombs, superfluous.  I mean, if there are only foolish minds and mindless bodies there'll be nothing serious to annihilate.  In the highest government positions almost no human beings have been seen for decades now, anywhere in the world.  Mankind must recover its imaginative powers, recover living thought and real being, no longer accept these insults to the soul, and do it soon.  Or else!  And this is where a man like Humboldt, faithful to failed ideas, lost his poetry and missed the boat.' (Bellow 253)
           
            I'll end this essay in the most positive way possible, given that the grim reality of the physical body and the cultural ideology that overshadows us is extremely bleak in Delmore Schwartz's life and work.  Charlie Citrane in Humboldt's Gift says at one point, "on esthetic grounds therefore I am obliged to deny that so extraordinary a thing as a human soul can be wiped out forever.  No, the dead are about us, shut out by our metaphysical denial of them" (Bellow 142).  And in a somewhat corny way this is true.  By including him in their work Bellow and Berryman have highlighted the importance of this man to their life and their work.  Their reaction to his death, his entire life's story and his amazing work have the ability to make us feel that this could happen to anyone under such conditions, and, at least for Bellow, it's a cultural problem.  And, lastly, here is the entirety of Berryman's Dream Song 156:

I give in. I must not leave          the scene of this same death
as most of me strains to.
There are all the problems to be sorted out,
the fate of the soul, what it was all about
during its being, and whether he was drunk
at 4 a.m. on the wrong floor too

fighting for air, tearing his sorry clothes
with his visions dying O and O I mourn
again this complex death
Almost my oldest friend should never have been born
to this terrible end, out of which what grows
but an unshaven, dissheveled corpse?

The spirit & the joy, in memory
live of him on, the young will read his young verse
for as long as such things go:
why then do I despair, miserable Henry
who knew him all so long, for better & worse
and nearly would follow him below.    (Berryman 175).



Works Cited:
Atlas, James. Delmore Schwartz: The Life of an American Poet. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1977.

Beard, Phillip L. "Inconclusible Desire--The Doubling of Delmore Schwartz." Literary Imagination Volume 11.1: 61-76.

Bellow, Saul. Humboldt's Gift. New York: Penguin Books, 2008.

Berryman, John.  The Dream Songs. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007.

Ford, Edward. A Reevaluation of the Works of American Writer Delmore Schwartz, 1913-1966. Lewiston: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2005.

04 August 2010

Menomena's Mines: A Review


Remember when Dismemberment Plan slowly changed their sound toward more maturity with Emergency & I, then made the completely beautiful and uncharacteristically toned down, serious record, Change?  Yeah, me neither.  But I bet there are people older than me who kept up with independent rock at the turn of the century that can verify it.  All I really have to work with are the works themselves, while others probably have a fuller understanding of the context the albums were released in.  Either way I see a lot of similarities between Dismemberment Plan and Menomena with regards to maturing as individual groups.  The first Dismemberment Plan album, !, was jumpy, chaotic, apt to shouting abruptly, and featured discordant alarming guitar patterns mixed with poppy jingles for choruses.  The lyrics dealt with failed relationships, introspection, sarcasm, and wit, and sometimes were placed in a sincere, more down-trodden environment, like "Rusty," instead of the emotional rollercoaster ride that is "Ok Jokes Over" (which features a great slide guitar, much like Jesus Lizard's "Nub").   With the next album, The Dismemberment Plan is Terrified, they kept a lot of the same quirks, but added more heartfelt songs, while maintaining a good measure of the crazy songs that came to characterize them.  Then with Emergency & I the mix became more even, and that mix, coupled with more earnest lyrics, resulted in it being their best album.  The opening track on Change, "Sentimental Man," in the context of their previous albums is like a cool pleasant mist brushing over your face, when you may be expecting a water balloon.  And that water balloon never comes.  The entire album is a more peaceful, yet still anxiously introspective sign of maturity and acceptance.  It's just too bad that they broke up after it.
            Although, obviously, this isn't a direct parallel to Menomena's career, again, there is a similar transition of maturity taking place, and this time I was actually "there" when Friend and Foe was released and here now, upon the release of Mines.  I remember when I first heard Friend and Foe, how I was blown away by their songwriting and song-forming process through the help of a computer program that one of the band members had made.  I saw them live in 2007, after the release of that album and was very impressed by their versatility on stage, switching instruments seamlessly.  Also at that show, I bought their first album, I am the Fun Blame Monster (an anagram for The First Menomena Album), which had a little bit of a more serious tone compared to the playful one in Friend and Foe (although it also has its share of "serious" songs: "West" and "Rotten Hell" for example) that I had become accustomed to.  And with Mines I get a similar feel of the extremity in seriousness over playfulness taking place as with Change by Dismemberment Plan.  But this isn't to say that it's a boring album, or a depressing album, but a gorgeous empathetic one.  "Muscle n' Flo," the song that kicks off Friend and Foe has this sort of kids-playing-in-a-toilet-merrily (or something like that) vibe, and the voices, although singing disparagingly about facing the day, sound nonchalantly joyful in a way.  But on Mines we get a solemn start that sets the tone of the album, much like Change.  There are some songs that are still true to form, like "BOTE," which, for me at one point made me wonder if Menomena were sampling themselves.  I guess that's just a sign of an artist or group that has a very unmistakable sound.
            I'm not sure the actual validity of this (as I'm not a real music journalist and don't get press releases), but I heard somewhere on the very reliable Internet that some, or all of the members of this band grew up in very strong Christian households.  I seem to remember an interview somewhere where one member said something about having Michael W. Smith albums in his house when he was younger, which is something I'm familiar with as well.  That being the case, assuming that they aren't as strong of Christians anymore, this album seems to seek solace in spirituality outside the confines of religion - in their own way.  The voice of the singers seems more pining for something and the lyrics, sometimes made up of simple yet extremely meaningful and potent statements resonate, just as the lyrics "rabbit's door," "rabbit's hole," and "open book," from earlier in the song, echo at the end in a swirl similar to my mental process at the end of the night sometimes, in "Black Queen Acid."  At the moment, my favorite songs are "Dirty Cartoons" and "Tithe."  "Dirty Cartoons," whether conscious or not recalls the same sentiments as The Beach Boys' "Sloop John B," in the yearning to "go home."  The end of the song sounds eerily like a song straight out of a church hymnal, and is played with so much genuine feeling, it pervades into the metaphysical realm.  And I've often felt, on those days when everything seems so mundane and pointless, the sentiment of "Nothing sounds appealing" that is at center of "Tithe" (which also has an overtly religious theme).
            The first time I listened to this album, I sort of felt done with it, but I may have been preoccupied with something else.  A week later when I finally got around to listening to it again, I loved it so much I had to listen to it again, and I'm still, two days later listening to it multiple times a day.  I really didn't have an expectation for this album, basically because I had forgotten about the band in the 3 years since they released their previous album, that is until a few months ago when one of my co-workers was wearing the Menomena shirt that had their name in the Metallica font, and we talked about them briefly and he said "Yeah, they're about due for a new album.  It's been a while."  It certainly was a while, but the quality of this album is well worth the wait.